Despite the fact that I was selling a weight-loss product, I was clearly on a different ethical wavelength to a lot of other business owners in the industry. In the first few years of the teatox boom, most of my competitors utilised an effective form of social proof to generate sales: before-and-after photos. It’s much easier to sell a weight loss fantasy to potential customers when you can prove that your product works by showing just how well it has worked for other people. While the practice faced a lot of backlash in recent years for promoting an unhealthy body image, it was utilised to great effect for quite some time on most social media platforms. The photos typically showed girls, many of whom were under 18, wearing bikinis or underwear, posing in front of a camera. The idea is that the subject of the photo would take a photo before drinking a particular tea and then again after having consumed the tea for 14 or 28 days. The after photos are typically taken at a more flattering angle and show a flatter stomach and noticeable weight loss. I feel like I am a relatively intelligent person and don’t usually fall for marketing tricks, but I remember seeing a before-and-after photo on social media for the first time; a part of me couldn’t help but wonder if I could lose a little bit of weight by doing exactly what these girls were doing. “You’re telling me that all I have to do is drink tea, without doing any exercise, and I will lose weight? Sign me up!” The photos reminded me of the before-and-after sequences shown on infomercials. The ‘before’ scenes often feature a sad, pale, and overweight person who has nothing to live for. After using the Juice Press Pro 6000 for just five days, the person finds a new lease on life. In a matter of days, they are transformed into a happy, tanned, and functioning member of society. Thanks Juice Press Pro!
In a desperate effort to boost my own sales, I posted a picture and caption on Instagram requesting before and after photos from anyone who had consumed my tea and experienced positive results. Anyone who submitted photos would receive a month’s supply of tea for free. I wasn’t overly optimistic. What type of person would want photos of themselves in underwear being shown to thousands of people on social media? Within a day, I received over 20 emails, each containing before-and-after photos. I had no idea why these people had taken selfies before and after consuming my tea without being prompted. At the time, I assumed it was a way for them to track whether or not the product was working. The more likely explanation, however, is that they sent their half-naked pictures to every teatox company that made a similar request. Everyone who emailed seemed to understand the game. The ‘after’ photo had to show noticeable weight loss for it to be useful for marketing purposes. Going through those photos was the lowest I ever felt in business. What did it say about society that there were so many girls and young women willing to trade revealing images of themselves for a weight loss tea?
Many of the girls didn’t look older than 15 or 16 and clearly wouldn’t have had an understanding of how those pictures could have impacted the rest of their lives if they were ever used. It’s one thing for me to post those pictures on my accounts with a few thousand followers; it’s another thing altogether if another company used the photos and posted them on accounts with hundreds of thousands of active followers.
As I went through the emails one by one, trying to find a compelling before-and-after picture, I came across an email from a girl who looked to be about 16 years old. In both the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos, she was completely naked. In each photo, she covered her breasts with her left forearm and had placed her right hand over her groin. It looked like an attempt to mimic a Kim Kardashian modelling pose. I was mortified. Had my Instagram callout led to these photos being taken? I could tell that the photos were clearly taken on the same day as she hadn’t bothered to pick up her clothes on the floor in the background of the second photo. The girl had changed the angle of her body and pushed her stomach out to make herself appear slightly more bloated in the ‘before’ picture. At this point, I had to stop. I couldn’t bring myself to post any of the pictures. I felt completely uncomfortable objectifying these girls in the name of selling a product. It was hard to accept that this was what social media was doing to a generation of young girls. I shipped out the tea to everyone who emailed. After permanently deleting each email one-by-one, I left it at that.
A few weeks later, I saw an Australian teatox company post those same naked images on their Instagram account to an audience of over 300,000 people. This was at a time before Instagram’s algorithm had been changed and it was much easier to see the posts of the people you were following. I saw the photos pop up immediately. To my surprise, no-one seemed to have a problem with it. It was one of their most popular posts at the time. There was no outcry or widespread admonishment of the brand. This was the state of marketing on social media. We have become desensitised to seeing young girls posing in their underwear. It is the new normal. The company in question was rewarding anyone who sent in photos with a 14-day supply of tea that retailed for $35. The tea cost no more than $3 to make. That’s all it took to get girls to send through semi-naked photos: a $3 bag of tea.
As I spent more time on social media, I became deeply concerned about the state of unconscious online consumerism and had an even greater concern for the way girls were prostituting themselves in the name of social media stardom. On reflection, however, I realised that I was doing the same thing. Anything for a click; anything for a ‘like’; anything for a sale. Social media empires are like castles built on sand. It’s great for a time; who wouldn’t want to live in a castle? When you start to notice cracks in the floors, you are reminded of how unstable the foundations truly are.
It’s something that the newspaper industry has been struggling with for some time, as it tries to adjust to the way people now consume online news content. Not so long ago, I subscribed to my favourite newspaper and had it delivered each morning. There was something so ritualistic about the experience of stumbling out of bed, collecting the paper from the mail box, and reading it at my dining room table over a hot cup of coffee. Having a physical newspaper in front of me served as a daily reminder to actually read it. The business model worked. Now, the business model is about clicks. If I no longer have a subscription to a physical newspaper, I no longer get that daily reminder to read it. If I don’t receive an email notification, I have to independently remember to go to their website to find that news source each day.
There is a different level of accountability when you commit to having something in print. When something is physically printed, it can, in theory, last forever. We can go back in time and read newspaper articles printed at the turn of the 20th century. We can run our fingers over the raised ink and see the exact words that were approved for print. We can place ourselves in the newsroom and see the journalists hunched over their typewriters frantically trying to meet impossible deadlines before a strict print cut-off. It was a time when journalists would report on the news; now, they create it.
Newspapers with print subscribers had a guaranteed revenue stream. Journalists only had to worry about whether they were reporting on something that was newsworthy. They didn’t have to think about clicks or whether a title was going to trend on Twitter or whether their reporting could create a national movement. The way publishers generated revenue ensured that there was a separation between reporting and the financial considerations of the publisher. If the newspaper produced quality content, they would have more subscribers, and the newspaper would make more money from advertisers. It was a simple formula. While the advent of social media started to change the way people consumed news, the movement towards lower-quality online content had a lot more to do with increased production costs than changes in consumption habits. Publishers faced constant cost increases in producing and distributing physical newspapers. For a time, publishers were able to pass these costs onto consumers in the form of price increases and consumers were only too happy to pay. Consumers, however, can only be pushed so far. There is only so much money most people feel comfortable spending on a newspaper each day. Newspapers were naturally drawn to online distribution as a way of cutting out many of the costs that were crippling the industry.
Shifting the focus to online distribution brought a whole host of previously unforeseen problems. Content couldn’t just be newsworthy or objectively informative, it also had to be popular. Publishers had to worry about whether a story would be shared on Facebook, or tweeted about, or emailed. It became more important to get people onto a website than to produce quality content. Now that everything can be changed and deleted, there is less pressure to get a story right before it is broadcast to the world.
Most people have no idea that online newspapers use A/B testing to change headlines and articles to create content that gets more clicks. The more clicks a website gets, the more money a publisher stands to make from advertisers. The incentive structure pushes publishers to create content that is popular first and newsworthy second.
The same incentive structure exists for all businesses trying to make money online. With ecommerce, popularity is much more important than substance. Let’s say you have two people, on opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum, each creating a line of supplements that they are both planning to sell online. The first person, Dr Elizabeth Stevens, spent the last few years conducting research and laboratory work to isolate and extract an ingestible compound from New Zealand pine bark. The extract contains 1000 times the antioxidants of a standard cup of green tea, along with a whole host of other health benefits. There are even rumblings in the academic community that Dr Stevens’ findings are going to revolutionise the supplement industry. The research has cost close to one million dollars. While most of that money has come from research grants, Dr Stevens has committed hundreds of thousands of dollars of her own money to further the research. Her plan is to release a range of capsules that can be sold in health food stores, as well as on her own website. She knows nothing about trademark law or branding, so she decides to outsource all of the work to a creative agency. The agency offers her a package deal: all the branding, brand identity, copy, website design and hosting, and packaging design for the low price of $80,000. Dr Stevens doesn’t want to shop around, so she accepts the quote and moves forward with the development and production of her capsules.
A few kilometres away, a young woman named Tammy Williams has an idea. She wants to create a range of diet capsules that she can sell through her online store. Tammy has just completed her communications degree at university and now works part time at a local café. She has no experience creating or marketing supplements, but plans to use all of her savings to launch her business. She calls several vitamin manufacturers to pitch her idea and finds a manufacturing facility nearby that agrees to work with her. They agree to squeeze her in to their production schedule in one month, just after they finish a run for an exciting new capsule that contains pine bark extract — a world first. The company already produces a range of diet pills, so Tammy decides to just sell the same capsules under her own brand rather than creating something new. She lands on the name Tiny Tammy for her brand — something cute and catchy. With the help of a friend, Tammy designs the labels and finds an online sticker printer who can produce the stickers quickly. Tammy quickly burns through the little money she had saved and picks up extra shifts at the café to make ends meet.
Since Tammy doesn’t have any money left, she sets up a basic Shopify store and waits patiently for her capsules to be manufactured. Her plan is to send the capsules to a few popular people on Instagram so that they can promote the products. Dr Stevens, on the other hand, has been sold a more conventional marketing package by the creative agency she engaged. Their plan is to attack national newspapers with half page adverts in the magazine sections promoting the health benefits of the products. With the additional costs associated with actually launching the brand, Dr Stevens has now spent well in excess of one million dollars. She finds out that the advertising campaign is going to cost an extra $50,000 on top of the $80,000 she has already spent.
After a few months of sales, Dr. Stevens’ business is struggling. The advertising campaign failed and only generated a few thousand dollars in sales. The creative agency has agreed to review their marketing strategy for another $20,000. Dr. Stevens has no choice but to accept. Tammy’s business on the other hand has exploded. After one post from a YouTuber, she broke even and, in the weeks that followed, she quickly sold through all of her stock. She placed another order and sold through that stock even faster. After only a few months, she quit her job to focus on the business full time. She hired her friend to work for her and moved her stock to a warehouse.
Ecommerce doesn’t reward effort, it rewards popularity. Unless a business has an online store that generates good traffic without advertising, the fastest way to access potential customers is by paying influencers. The only way for a business to have enough money to pay influencers is by having great margins. The only way to have great margins is by selling terrible products. In an ideal world, Dr Stevens’ business would thrive. She put in the effort, spent the money, and brought a completely new and innovative product to market. Dr Stevens should be rewarded. Innovation should be rewarded. Why then, is Tammy being rewarded instead? All she did was put her sticker on a bottle. She didn’t create a single thing. She is just repackaging a product that was already in existence. This inequity exists because Tammy understands influencer marketing and Dr Stevens doesn’t. The best marketers know where to find their customers. Tammy found her market on social medial. Dr Stevens on the other hand was unable to access her market through more traditional forms of advertising. In the same way that newspapers are no longer rewarded for ground-breaking reporting, brands are no longer rewarded for innovation. Dr Stevens’ product could have done just as poorly if it was marketed through the same channels that Tammy used. To summarise, Tammy spent just $10,000, while Dr Stevens spent over $1,000,000; Tammy had her products within a month, while Dr Stevens spent years developing her products; Tammy repackaged existing products, while Dr Stevens bought completely new products to market; Tammy makes over $50,000 a month in sales, while Dr Stevens’ business is only able to generate sales of $5,000 each month.
So, what’s the lesson here? The lesson is that there is no point trying to innovate if you are going to market through social media. There’s no point producing ground-breaking news content — just do a write up about the Kardashians. There’s no point creating innovative consumer products — just sell a weight loss product. Originality doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you are able to access a market. I had to learn this lesson first-hand.